Rights Groups Urge Inmate Release as COVID-19 Infections Spike in Cambodia’s Prisons

Overcrowded conditions are leading to mass outbreaks in the facilities, the groups say.
Rights Groups Urge Inmate Release as COVID-19 Infections Spike in Cambodia’s Prisons A woman checks her temperature at a screening point before entering at the Central Market in Phnom Penh, May 24, 2021.

Cambodia should immediately release inmates who are most at risk from the coronavirus and pre-trial detainees eligible for bail amid the risk of “mass outbreaks” in the country’s overcrowded prisons and detention centers, a rights group said Monday.

While the coronavirus made few inroads into Cambodia in 2020, the country’s latest outbreak in February has led to nearly 180 deaths and the number of people infected with COVID-19—the disease caused by the virus—has climbed to nearly 25,800.

The drastic rise in infections recently led Prime Minister Hun Sen to issue crippling lockdown measures as part of a bid to curb the spread of the virus. While such measures—in addition to increased testing and vaccinations—have helped to protect the public, rights groups on Monday warned that a recent rash of COVID-19 cases in prisons in the capital Phnom Penh and Sihanouk province shows inmates are particularly susceptible to infection and current mitigation efforts are inadequate.

“The authorities should immediately reduce the prison population in line with international human rights standards and World Health Organization (WHO) guidance, and ensure that all those in detention have equitable access to hygiene supplies, as well as tests, treatment and vaccines for COVID-19,” New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) and London’s Amnesty International (AI) said in a joint statement.

The two groups noted that in December, the United Nations Special Rapporteurs on the situation of human rights in Cambodia and on the right to physical and mental health issued a joint communication to the Cambodian government calling for prisons to be urgently decongested in the context of the pandemic, but that no significant measures have yet been undertaken.

Earlier this month, Cambodia’s Department of Prisons revealed that 34 inmates at Preah Sihanouk Provincial Prison had tested positive, and that hundreds of additional prisoners have since tested positive, although the government has not released official figures. Additionally, the groups said they had received reports in mid-May of hundreds of positive cases in the Phnom Penh Jail, and more than a dozen cases in CC1—the country’s largest and most overcrowded prison.

“We call on the prison authorities to act with greater transparency and to immediately publish complete information on the number of positive cases recorded in prisons, and to take immediate action to protect the lives and health of people in detention, including by urgently reducing overcrowding in all prisons across the country,” the groups said.

“The Cambodian authorities should immediately release all pre-trial detainees across the country who are eligible for bail, as well as prisoners who are most at risk from COVID-19. They should also provide for the early, temporary or conditional release of prisoners convicted of misdemeanors or non-violent offences.”

Cambodia’s prison population totals around 39,000 and the country’s prisons have an average occupancy above 300 percent of capacity. Some 35 percent of all prisoners are being held in pre-trial detention.

WHO needs ‘injection of political courage’

In a separate statement, Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director for HRW, called out the WHO for remaining silent when the Cambodian government ignored its recommendations on prisoner releases during the pandemic.

“Everyone saw a potential outbreak coming and measures to prevent or mitigate its impact on prisoners should have been implemented long ago by the Cambodian government,” he said.

“The WHO Cambodia office clearly needs an injection of political courage and commitment because it is baffling that when they speak, they only seem able to congratulate the government on its rights abusing COVID-19 responses.”

Robertson said that WHO Cambodia should call on the government to ensure that rolled out vaccination plans of prisoners are voluntary and based on informed consent, while nationwide prisoner releases are expanded and sped up.

“The government needs to move much faster if they want to prevent what might become an uncontrollable outbreak in the prisons,” he warned.

Government reaction

Department of Prisons spokesman Nuth Savana on Monday dismissed infection numbers in the joint statement from HRW and AI as “speculation” and suggested the groups were “caus[ing] confusion and suspicion about our transparency.”

He said that the government had already vaccinated more than 12,000 inmates in three prisons in Phnom Penh and a prison in the city of Sihanoukville and is “working extremely hard” to prevent viral spread.

“We have no plan to request the release of inmates to reduce the population,” he said. “However, we do not rule out that option if the spread becomes too big to handle.”

But Soeung Senkaruna—spokesperson for the Cambodian rights group Adhoc—told RFA’s Khmer Service that inmates have already been deprived of their liberty and must not be deprived of their right to a safe environment amid the pandemic.

“The government should not turn a blind eye to civil society’s requests for attention to the well-being of inmates,” he said. “They need to take immediate action to save them. A stitch in time saves nine.”

Unions call for shutdowns

Also on Monday, Cambodia’s unions called for government shutdowns of garment factories amid a recent surge in infections among workers.

Cambodian Labour Confederation President Ath Thun told RFA that the rate of positive COVID-19 cases in factories will only worsen if authorities do not take immediate action to close down infected facilities.

He insisted that the government also intervene to ensure that employers do not cut wages or take away employee benefits.

​“There will be effects on the orders, as well as the transfer and the transportation of goods,” he said.

“The workers will have no money because of factory shutdowns, so it is important to close down only the factories that are affected by COVID-19.”

Fleeing rising cases

While Cambodia struggles with its latest outbreak, reports of new cases and death in other parts of Southeast Asia suggest that the spread of the coronavirus is far from over in the region.

In neighboring Laos, which has recorded only two COVID-19 deaths and 1,822 infections, hundreds of workers fled Bokeo province for their home villages through the weekend after demanding special travel documents from authorities while the province struggles with the country’s second-worst infection rate after the capital Vientiane with 475 cases.

A member of Bokeo’s Taskforce Committee for COVID-19 Prevention and Control told RFA’s Lao Service that despite relatively high rates of infection, the spread of the coronavirus is now under control.

“Two weeks ago, we saw up to 100 cases a day; last week there were 40 to 50; and this week, there has been no infection at all for the last two days,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“However, we can’t let our guard down and we will continue to monitor the situation.”

The taskforce member said that most of the 600 people who had fled over the weekend were workers from banana and bean plantations in Bokeo’s Tonpheung district, and that they had all been tested for COVID-19 before they were allowed to leave.

Local residents queue before casting their ballots for National Assembly members at a voting station in Hanoi, May 23, 2021. AFP

Death toll increase

In Vietnam, health officials announced the country’s 44th COVD-19 death on Monday, marking the ninth case in the past 10 days.

The latest death came as health officials also confirmed that a new coronavirus variant was leading to more critical cases in the country’s latest outbreak, which began on April 24. Local media cited leading health experts as saying that the new variant was not only causing serious complications in patients with underlying diseases, but also young people.

As of Monday, Vietnam has recorded more than 4,500 cases of COVID-19 infection. The number of recorded cases since last month’s outbreak was first discovered is now 1,472.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer, Lao and Vietnamese Services. Translated by Sok Ry Sum, Max Avary, and Anna Vu. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.


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